Today, Florida State University became the 3rd university to suspend all Greek life on its main campus after the death of a fraternity pledge on Friday Nov. 3rd. The other two schools were Penn State, which suspended the system for the spring semester and LSU, which suspended their program for a month. For FSU, the suspension means the elimination of any and all social events, chapter meetings, and rush/new member events.
The sad, yet increasing death toll of young men and women involved in greek life on American college campuses is both tragic and preventable. As someone who was part of greek life while I was at Illinois, I have first hand experience as to what Greek Life on a large college campus is like - though my house was anything but the stereotypical "Frat House". The house was mostly filled with engineers and computer science majors, with the odd business major here and there. We had a unique policy where we wouldn't host parties at the house, but rather off-site at bars and barns (it was Illinois after all). This kept the house in reasonable condition, which is what the focus of this post will be on.
Greek life has been dissected as a social issue, so I wanted to explore the lesser appreciated aspect of it as a housing problem.
Fraternities and sororities on US campuses evolved in the late 19th century, with chapter houses starting to become more common around the 1890's. While back then houses may have housed a few dozen students, today chapter houses are upwards of 56,000 square feet, housing hundreds of students at a time. With large college campuses often having well over two dozen different chapter houses, Greek buildings account for millions of square feet of housing and are responsible for the living quarters for thousands of students. And what people often fail to realize is how affordable Greek housing is.
According to this article, the cost of living in a Greek house can cost between $3000 and $5300 per semester, depending on the school and chapter. If I remember correctly, spring semester included the summer months, since trying to get a sublet in a Greek house is impossible and the chapters want/need the money, plus they want you to spend time at the house. So, essentially, Greek life provides housing AND meals to students at a rate somewhere between $500-$900/mo. By comparison, the cost of the cheapest on-campus housing with a meal plan today at Penn State is about $900/mo - and summer's extra. People may think frats are filled with elitist rich kids, and that may be true at times - but it's often way more economical to live in a fraternity or sorority than to stay on campus!
In land use planning, Greek housing is often considered a "group home", which is loosely defined as a home where multiple unrelated persons reside. Usually, this use is grouped together with nursing homes, halfway houses, prisons, and college dormitories. Of course, Greek residences share little in common with other group housing types by their users (cheap jokes aside), but on a building design and co-habitation model, they're extremely alike. Group sleeping quarters, large shared common areas, organized activities - fraternity and sorority houses effectively function just like an aged-care facility (insert cheap joke here).
What makes the FSU suspension concerning to me, and should be concerning to other university administrators, is the future of Greek life as a housing solution to colleges. As mentioned before, on most large college campuses, these houses provide a tremendous residential service to the schools. Greek homes absorb students that would otherwise need to be housed on-campus, requiring the schools to building million dollar facilities - or often more controversial - being housed off-campus in residential neighborhoods. In urban areas such as Boston and Philadelphia (two places I've lived and gone to college in), the town/gown strife over encroaching student living is ever-present, with students driving up the cost of housing closer to campus. Going forward, universities across the country have some very difficult decisions to make.
Like PSU, FSU couldn't sit idly by and watch an element of its student life act irresponsibly and ultimately fatally. It had to do something. And, the calls for banning Greek Life continue to get louder, much to the dismay of those involved in Greek organizations - and I imagine those working in the Facilities/Real Estate departments of schools; because, if those houses are shut down - what becomes of them?
As an example, if PSU eliminated Greek life tomorrow, 39 frats, 20 sororities, and 12 multi-cultural or unaffiliated chapters would be gone. Thousands of students would become homeless if unable to live in the houses, and dozens of properties worth millions of dollars would suddenly become targets for redevelopment, since the homes are far more valuable as multi-unit buildings than they are as group homes. Absorbing the students would put college towns in untenable situations, and schools wouldn't be able to replace the lost units on-campus for years. Schools could acquire the houses and run them as student housing - it's kinda been done before - but again, this adds millions of dollars in administrative expenses onto a school's budget, not to mention the initial capital outlay required to buy the properties in the first place.
It's this conundrum that in my opinion is the reason why schools have been reluctant to end Greek life, and why efforts will be first made to reform Fraternity and Sorority culture on campus, before any real efforts will be made to disband Greek life. No university president is going to want to explain to his or her board why the school has an unexpected multi-million dollar line item in the budget for emergency student housing replacement, and no mayor/elected official is going to want to have to explain to constituents that they need to borrow money to pay for students to live off-campus.
Love it or hate it, in my opinion, Fraternities and Sororities aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Barring egregious behavior, schools will continue to have an uneasy relationship with these organizations. Some schools may seek a deliberate, long-term strategy (taking 10+ years) to end Greek life on their campus, but the majority of them will likely continue to permit their existence because it would be too difficult to recreate the housing service they provide.
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia